Selly Thiam is the founder and executive producer of None on Record, a sound documentary project that collects the stories of QLGBT Africans from the African Continent and the Diaspora. Selly, who is of Senegalese descent, was born and raised in Chicago. She came out in high school, and found herself searching for women like her – West African lesbian women – but couldn’t find any. Her search for people who shared her intersectional experiences led her to community organizing and activism and, ultimately, to None on Record.
Thiam started None on Record in 2006 in response to the murder of a Sierra Leonean QLGBT activist, and since then, Thiam and her colleagues have collected thousands of oral histories from all over the world. The first None on Record satellite project was launched in Canada, and there are now additional satellites in Johannesburg, Dakar, and will soon open one in Nairobi. The goal of these satellites, Thiam says, is to enable people to collect their own local oral histories, and to create their own archives. You can listen to some of those oral histories – some of which are absolutely stunning – here.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Selly Thiam.
Chloe Angyal: How did you come to be involved in LGBT activism, and in None of Record specifically?
Selly Thiam: I was a freshman in high school when I came out, and when I came out, because it was a predominately African American school at the time, there weren’t a lot of images of Black lesbians at the time. I didn’t any! It was always a refrain I had as I was growing up, I didn’t have any, so I kept looking for people, to get a sense of belonging and a sense of community. So at an early age, I began to look beyond my community and at the city as a whole to see what was going on, and that’s when I fell upon activism. So I got involved in all different workshops, like media for LGBT people in high school, and then when I got out of high school and college, I started doing community organizing work for different organizations that teach media, like how to do documentaries around the lives of LGBT kids in Chicago public schools. So that’s how my activism began: slowly.
None on Record was started in 2006. In 2004, FannyAnn Eddy, who was from Sierra Leone and had an LGBT organization in Freetown, was murdered in the offices of the Sierra Leone Lesbian and Gay Organization. And when news of her murder hit the international papers, I was living in Chicago at the time. And even though I’m of Senegalese descent, I was born and raised in Chicago, and I had never actually seen a West African lesbian. I had done a lot of work on LGBT issues in communities of color in Chicago, but not particularly with African communities. So when news of her murder reached me it really impacted me, and I began to really think about what was going on over there in terms of LGBT equity and social movements.
I met a woman from Sierra Leone who lives in Toronto, and that made her the second West African lesbian I’d ever met, and at that time, I didn’t really know what I was going to do with the interview. I thought I would turn it into an article or something, because originally I was trained as a writer. And I had recently met an NPR producer who asked me to record the interview. So I drove to Toronto to do an interview with her, and that interview actually went on public radio three or four times.
And after that I started thinking about the stuff that we had talked about in the interview, the loneliness and the isolation around being gay and lesbian and being African or being part of the Diaspora. So there had to be more people who were also feeling this way. So I started to look around and travel to find other people who wanted to tell their stories about their lives, on the continent, or in the Diaspora, about being LGBT.
CA: Who are your favorite fictional heroines?
ST: In no particular order, Aunt Ifeoma from Purple Hibiscus, the twin sisters, Olanna and Kainene in Half a Yellow Sun, all three of Sofi’s daughters in So Far From God, Adah from The Poisonwood Bible, the genderless protagonist from Written on the Body and Dictee. All of Dictee.
CA: Who are your heroines in real life?
ST: My mother is probably my first. I feel really blessed to have been raised by that woman. She’s this very Southern woman, and when she and my father had my sister and I, she had this idea that she was going to put us in these very diverse communities and we were going to do all this arts education and we were going to travel all over the world. And she kind of did that without knowing how to do that. When I ask her now she says “I didn’t know what I was doing, but I did the best I could.” And she also taught me how to be really brave, so I really feel blessed to have been raised by her.
And then there’s the community of people that I have working with me on the project, who for a long time have been closeted, and have really stepped out, and have joined our advisory board and really made themselves visible. All the people who have been a part of making this project successful are definitely my heroes in real life.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
ST: I had some problems with the New York Times Magazine women’s issue that they did a few months ago. I read it cover to cover, and I really appreciated the amount of press that was going to a lot of women’s issues globally, but I didn’t always like the tone. A lot of times I felt like the women were not being viewed as people who were empowered and had agency. And I find that to be the way that people view women from the global South, that they’re just victims who have no agency. And having been raised partly in the global South and having been so many women around me who did have to deal with lots of violence, who are extraordinarily strong and who did have extraordinary agency, I didn’t like the tone of those articles.
And of course, the Ugandan situation has been very troubling to me. I think the coverage of it has been interesting. The tone of it, the whole “the Americans brought this here, and the Ugandan people can’t control themselves and are going to these extreme measures,” has been the tone of a lot of the articles. And it also bothered me because a lot of the time, the way African people are portrayed, it’s as though they have no control over how they process information. So with the way things are covered sometimes, they use stereotypes sometimes to portray the primitive nature of Africans, and sometimes, people exploit the fact that people see Africans that way. A lot of these things about LGBT rights and equality on the Continent have been happening for a very long time. So it is in some ways good that there’s been so much media attention because it’s hopefully going to spread to looking at other places on the Continent as well, but I would hate for it to become an issue of, “well, that’s just how Africans are; they don’t have a concept of human rights,” because that’s just absurd. And in some ways, a lot of the organizing has already been happening
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
ST: There’s definitely the issue of diversity, of making space for different experiences. You know, my mom is this amazing woman, and she’s definitely a feminist, but she would never call herself a feminist because the idea of being a feminist in her generation was really connected to race; Black women weren’t feminists. And that’s changing, of course, but I still think that the diversity of experiences has to change, you know, how people self-identify or how other people identify women as feminists. Just because a woman doesn’t behave in a way that you believe a feminist should behave doesn’t mean that she’s any less a feminist. So I think that finding a more inclusive way to communicate around ideas of feminism will strengthen the movement.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you take?
ST: I don’t know. The idea of being trapped on one horrifies me. I would bring water. I am practical in that way. And food? Chocolate. That is the not so practical side of me. If I had to choose a feminist to go through that with me, I would have to say my partner, Jennifer Williams. We have not had a vacation in a long time.